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 Barnett on Business Travel

chris IN ATLANTA, A FRESH START
FOR INTERCONTINENTAL HOTELS


BY CHRIS BARNETT

December 16, 2004 -- Unless you're pushing 90, you missed the era when luxury hotels treated business travelers like visiting diplomats. Those were the days when a general manager in a world capital would pick up his phone and arrange a breakfast meeting for you with a central banker or the minister of trade. The days when a white-gloved bellman delivered your telegram on a sterling silver tray.

No group was better at looking after the needs of the prominent and influential than InterContinental Hotels. 'InterCon' managers weren't just hoteliers, they were ambassadors who cultivated the political and corporate power structure in their cities. They did favors for locals and called in markers for their best guests. Very discreetly and very quietly.

Long before Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton and Mandarin Oriental were courting senior managers and moguls, InterContinental ruled that rarefied roost around the world. Now, after a long dry spell under a series of corporate owners, InterContinental has opened a new hotel in the United States, a 443-room tower in Atlanta's tony Buckhead section. And if my experience is typical, the group has recaptured its bygone heritage of true luxury and excellent service. But there's a noticeable difference, too. InterContinental's newest is also fun and affordable.

Billed as the flagship of the now-independent InterContinental Hotels Group, the InterContinental Buckhead is architecturally sleek, but not cold. The staff is friendly and personable, but not forced.

It was a busy Friday night when I pulled up to the hotel, but the parking valet was immediately there, opening the car door and welcoming me. A smiling, uniformed doorman offered a second welcome and unloaded the trunk. But instead of handing my luggage off to a bellman and fishing for a tip, he walked me into the hotel, up to the front desk and introduced me by name to the young man who would check me in. Then he bid me goodbye and a good stay. A nice, very professional touch.

Despite what seemed like a packed house, there were six staffers at the front desk so no guests waited in line. The clerk flashed a smile, looked me right in the eye, gave me the warmest welcome yet and checked me in in about 90 seconds. A bellman was summoned. He took the bags, introduced me by name to the concierge--another thoughtful touch--and gave me a brief, oral tour of the hotel before taking me to my room.

The hotel's standard guestroom, at 400 square feet, is huge, with an entry and a very large bathroom with a whirlpool bath and a big, separate shower. Yet another nice touch is a coffeemaker with gourmet coffee. That's rarely seen in high-end hotels that would prefer you order a pot of joe from room service at $7 plus tip, plus service charge, plus delivery charge.

The room rate during the week is $299 a night and $199 on weekends. Some shopping around may net you the weekend rate during the week--if the hotel isn't sold out. Either way, rates are lower than those of the nearby Ritz-Carlton Buckhead.

Surprisingly, the InterContinental Buckhead charges $5.95 an hour or $10.95 a day of high-speed Internet access in your room. But it compensates by levying the same prices in its large business center with eight private workstations. Too many hotel business centers are eager to clip you for $20 to $50 an hour just to use their gear. Not here. To have round-the-clock access to the business center for just $10.95 is a great bargain.

For an extra $50 a night, you can move up to the private Club Intercontinental. It's worth it. The lounge is one of the best hotel clubrooms I've ever seen--with sizeable spreads of food, free drinks, a computer with fast Internet access and a separate boardroom for meetings. It was so comfortable that I just wanted to spend the day there relaxing.

Still, this is not an all-work-and-no-play salt mine for road warriors. The hotel has wisely scrapped the idea of three or four separate restaurants in favor of a 24-hour, Parisian brasserie and raw bar. As the first U.S. outpost of Paris-based Au Pied de Cochon, it's priced like a neighborhood eatery. Free-range chicken is $17, a 6-ounce filet mignon is $20 and the massive buffet breakfast is $22. Most upscale hotels ask almost twice as much.

In two months, Au Pied de Cochon has become something of an Atlanta hot spot. The chief executive officers of Coca-Cola and Home Depot drop in to eat. It's not that unusual for a large party of 12 to 15 business travelers to pop in at 3 a.m. for dinner, breakfast or lunch--or all of the above--depending on who has flown in from what country. Locals and savvy visitors book the "love booths," three ultra-private curtained hideways for one or two couples.

Instead of a boring hotel bar, the InterContinental Buckhead has created what is reportedly Atlanta's first and only cognac bar. Called X0, it's small and intimate--perhaps a dozen stools around a curved, pewter bar. Cornelius, an extremely charming and chatty mixologist working under a 25-foot ceiling, is, no surprise, a Cognac authority. Among the 48 labels is what is claimed to be the world's only remaining bottle of an 1806 vintage of Pierre Ferrand Domaine. Feeling good about closing a big deal? Celebrate with a snifter of the 1806 for a scant $375.

The old InterContinental hotels mirrored the strong personality of the general managers and the new Buckhead InterContinental is no different. Ronen Nissenbaum, who has previously managed Paris and Tel Aviv outposts of InterContinental, is both charismatic and a taskmaster.

"My job is to fill the hotel with soul, a good staff [and] an inviting atmosphere," he says.

Nissenbaum, in fact, personally interviewed every employee and told them flat out what he expected: "I want you to greet every person as if they were walking into your home and living with you. You are constantly 'on show.' Your success will be judged by how many compliments I hear from guests about you and the only way you'll get a compliment is by exceeding the guest's expectations, by going above and beyond."

Nissenbaum doesn't sugar coat his message to his employees. "Do something that makes an impression on our guests. Look at every customer as a potential compliment. You need to make them feel guilty for not writing to me. The more indebted you make them feel for providing them with such amazing service, the more they want to notify me how lucky they are to have you on our staff. Now you can tell me I'm crazy and say that's impossible and that's fine with me. Or you can commit to achieve my goals and join my team. The ball is in your court."

Based on the attentive, helpful service I received, the staff has heard Nissenbaum's message loud and clear.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright 2001-2004 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.